ZEPHYRHILLS — He returned to the field that bears his name via wheelchair. For two decades, Tom Fisher had been a dominant presence at this stadium. Now, he was a dependent one.
Bedecked in khakis and an orange T-shirt, the winningest football coach in Zephyrhills High history sat with a slouch and never spoke. His steely blue eyes were shrouded by the dark sunglasses he no longer can do without. Gail Fisher, who quit her job in the school system to care full-time for her husband of 39 years, helped steady his right arm as he performed the coin toss prior to the Oct. 13 game against rival Pasco.
“He really can’t do anything on his own,” Gail Fisher said.
The sobering image stood in glaring contrast to those from the turn of the millennium, when he seemed to do everything on his own. The quintessential small-town football coach, Fisher lined the field and laundered the uniforms, oversaw practices and paperwork, schemed and studied film. And won, a lot.
In 20 seasons, Fisher went 124-81 with eight playoff berths and three 10-win teams.
“My ultimate goal would be to surpass him one day, but he was here for 20 years,” said eighth-year Bulldogs coach Nick Carroll, still 56 wins shy of the man for whom he played in the mid-1990s. “Dude, that’s a long time. How many high school coaches last for 20 years nowadays?”
These days, longevity is measured in months, with the hope they build into years. Fisher, 71, is battling progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare brain disorder that impairs the ability to walk, balance, move your eyes and ultimately even swallow. Similar in nature to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), it afflicts 1.1 people per 100,000 annually, according to psp.org.
There’s no cure.
“But there’s nothing — and I do mean nothing — wrong with that brain,” Gail said. “He has zero dementia as far as that goes. He knows people when we are out and about. If he sees someone that he hasn’t seen in 20 years, he knows who they are.”
He just can’t pierce them with those blue eyes. Can’t goad or tease them in that rich bass frequency that bellowed across huddles and locker rooms. He can’t walk more than a few feet at a time.
“I almost wanted to cry (at the coin toss),” Carroll said. “Because you see a guy that’s like, so strong. Everyone looked up to him, and now to see the condition he’s in ...”
Minimal rosters, maximum results
Few coaches in the area made more out of less than Fisher, an Ohio native who took over the Bulldogs football program in 1989. With depth an annual concern, he employed two-way players out of necessity, compensating for his modest roster size by trying to out-scheme the opponent and fostering fortitude in his players.
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“I think they were just tough,” said former longtime Pasco coach Tom McHugh, who battled Fisher as both a head coach and coordinator for roughly a decade.
“When I first got to Pasco, I thought the John Benedettos (legendary former Land O’ Lakes coach), the Tom Fishers and the John Castelamares (longtime Wesley Chapel coach), they just exuded that toughness. I really tried to do that, and I think at certain times at Pasco, we did do that. We didn’t have the greatest players, but they were iron.”
In his first season, Fisher led the Bulldogs to a 9-2 record and the program’s first playoff appearance. After a winless season in 1992, his teams averaged more than eight wins over the next five years, reaching the postseason three times in that stretch. He collected 10 wins against rival Pasco.
“I just think he was, like, a really hard-nosed, no-excuses (coach),” Carroll said. “He worked really hard, and I think we just played hard and tough for him because that’s the only thing we knew.”
Worn down by the job’s demands and the strain of consecutive subpar seasons, Fisher announced his retirement at the team banquet shortly after the 2008 season. For roughly a decade, the father of three girls (who have given him six grandchildren) basked in those bonus hours by playing golf, doing building projects around the house and “treasure hunting” at local auctions.
But roughly five years ago, during a half-day charter fishing outing with his wife, Fisher couldn’t maintain his balance on the boat.
“And we’re boaters; we had a pontoon boat when the girls were growing up,” Gail said. “We used to go scalloping in Homosassa. We’re boating people. He just kept saying, ‘I don’t know why I can’t stand up on this boat.’”
Soon thereafter, his speech became mildly slurred, a regression so subtle that visiting relatives — who weren’t around Fisher daily — noticed it before Gail. That prompted a visit to a local neurologist, who did some rudimentary tests and a nerve-conduction study that ruled out Parkinson’s disease.
Another doctor, this time at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, also ruled out Parkinson’s but referred the couple to Dr. Nikolaus McFarland, a neurologist and movement-disorders specialist at the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases at UF Health. After numerous tests, including MRIs and swallow studies, Fisher was diagnosed with PSP.
“What’s weird about this disease is that it does everything to you that ALS does to you as far as shutting down your muscular systems, but ALS is a quicker demise,” Gail said. “It’s a much more rapid progression of immobility.”
Harvest of compassion
Today, Fisher can walk from the recliner to the restroom in his Zephyrhills home, but not without a walker and gait belt. He can still feed himself to a degree, though Gail assists with liquids “because it’s just easier than watching him struggle.” Because the eye muscles don’t work in tandem to focus, his vision is limited, and he needs the sunglasses due to light sensitivity.
“(The walking) is very soon going to go away, because his legs are just getting weaker and weaker,” Gail said. “He shuffles everywhere he goes. If I can remind him and get him to pick up his feet, then it’s a better situation, but then he just goes right back to the shuffle.”
Meantime, the lives in which he invested are yielding dividends of compassion. Kevin McLeod, a general contractor who played for Fisher in the early 1990s, is overseeing a 300-square-foot front porch addition to the Fisher home that is going to be wheelchair-accessible with a ramp.
His cousin and former Bulldogs teammate, Stephen McLeod, who owns his own civil-contract business, is assisting. So is another teammate, former Bulldogs two-way star B.J. Booker.
“In 30 some-odd years, I never heard one kid say something negative about Tom Fisher,” Kevin McLeod said. “I’m telling you, that’s the honest-to-God truth. He was a very fair man, and he was just a great leader.”
Amid the benevolence literally manifesting itself at her front door, Gail and her daughters are trying to pay things forward. The nonprofit Tom Fisher Foundation has been established to help raise PSP awareness and assist other families enduring the same ordeal. Ideally, Gail would like to open a community rec center that doubles as a place where PSP patients can receive various forms of support.
“We don’t need this as an income to live on and live high on the hog; that is not our purpose,” Gail said. “Our purpose is to help other people.”
Gail knows turning this vision into reality will require hard work, the maximization of minimal resources, perhaps some craftiness.
Same tools her husband employed to craft the greatest coaching record in Bulldogs history.
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls